Fanny, we hardly knew you

US feminists have given a new lease of life to a British writer all but forgotten at home, reports Veronica Lee
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FANNY BURNEY, all but ignored in British schools, has found a new lease of life nearly 160 years after her death - as a feminist heroine to American students. The regency writer, contemporary of Dr Johnson and Jane Austen, has a huge following among young female students in the United States, who have dedicated more than 150 websites to her life and work - far more than those about Austen, who is regarded as "mimsy".

Burney's subtle but acidly witty observations on late 18th and early 19th-century life have captured their imaginations. Jane Garcia, 24, a graduate student at the University of California, says: "She writes with far more soul and acuity than Austen, who I think copped out on her social observations because, when all is said and done, she wanted to be part of the very society she was supposed to be attacking. With Burney you feel she wasn't quite part of the society she wrote about."

Burney is seen as a woman oppressed by American feminist academics; she was discouraged from writing for the stage - her real love - because it was considered "indelicate" for a woman to do so at a time when actresses were barely above the levels of courtesans.

But what can someone who wrote of balls and taking the waters in Bath say to young women of a different continent and a different age? "She had a mind of her own and that's what counts," says Garcia. And the forward to one of her novels can be seen as a clarion call to the sisterhood: "Forget you are a dawdling woman, to remember that you are an active human being."

Her own life was full, to say the least. A major new biography reveals that Burney's brother had a relationship with her half-sister, her elder sister was illegitimate and her brother was rusticated from Cambridge for stealing books. None of that would be out of place in a modern-day tabloid story of the rich and famous.

Burney's American revival, says Yale academic Dr Nancy Johnson, can be traced back to her inclusion in histories of women's literature about 10 years ago. "She is very easy to read and very teachable, and now appears on almost every course on the novel. Her work is very lively and jumps off the page - it really brings that period to life."

Kate Chisholm, Burney's new biographer, is not so sure that Americans have really decoded her. "A lot of the stuff they teach is about her body [Burney had a mastectomy in middle age and gave birth to her first child at the age of 42], and a lot is about her imagery being about repressed sexuality. For instance, one of her characters, Madame Duval, who's a dreadful woman, falls into a ditch and they say it's really about an opening into her... oh, I don't think I can go into it, it's too embarrassing. The latest thing is about her descriptions of wigs having phallic connotations. To me that's totally up a gum tree. She just wasn't like that. Burney was an original woman with independent thoughts but she was also quite prudish and conventional. She would drop people who she thought were having affairs."

Not very modern of her, then. So have the Americans got it wrong - how are they seeing things which have managed to pass by British eyes for 200 years? "Maybe you guys just weren't looking hard enough," says Garcia.

'Fanny Burney: Her Life' by Kate Chisholm, Chatto and Windus, pounds 20, is reviewed in IoS Review section